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Albert Abrams And The Medical Fraud Debunked Using Red Ink And Sheep's Blood

The boxes did not do what they claimed.

James Felton

James Felton

Senior Staff Writer

clockNov 16 2022, 14:33 UTC
A black box with knobs on, to look like scientific equipment.
One of the magic boxes. Image credit: Public domain/US Food and Drug Administration

History is replete with con artists willing to make a buck from, for example, telling you your health will be improved by giving you a third testicle, taken from a goat or by increasing your daily dose of horrendous diarrhea. But one man, at the beginning of the 1900s, really took the biscuit with a machine he called the "dynamizer".

Albert Abrams, born in 1863 America, actually qualified as a doctor at the University of Heidleberg in 1882, despite understandable claims (given that his work often didn't show any understanding of how the human body works) that he was fraudulently claiming to be a doctor. What he chiefly became known for was a device, the dynamizer, which more than made up for this in its fraudulence.

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Abrams outlined the machine in his book, which in itself is a spectacular work of sustained bullsh*t. After introducing the book with a bold opening stating "the author's new physio-diagnostic and therapeutic models are not theories but physio-clinical facts and therefore endow this book with decisive meaning", it dives straight into a whole lot of nonsense. Flipping to a random page can get you to a chapter explaining the importance of the "polarity of human energy" and using magnets to cure a tummy ache.

The device, which came with plenty of scientific-looking knobs and dials, he claimed could diagnose "the sex, race and disease" as well as the religion of any patient he had never before dealt with. All he needed was a drop of blood from a patient, taken while that patient was facing west (a practice which, you'll notice, is not a thing), placed on a piece of paper, and mailed to him. Abrams claimed he would then place the paper in the machine (really a black box with plenty of fancy science wires) which would feed into other machines (each with their own science wires) called the Rheostatic Dynamizer, the Vibratory Rate Rheostat, and the Measuring Rheostat. Clearly, he embraced the "make this sound complicated as hell and people will stop asking questions" school of thought, in his quest to con patients.

If you think the above is all too silly, we regret to inform you that the Rheostat was then connected to a healthy patient, whose tummy was then played like a set of drums. The patient would only be dimly lit, and would also be facing west. 

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"The mysterious energy from the patient's blood sample or other specimen passes from the subject's forehead to the subject's abdomen where this mysterious electronic emanation sets up certain changes in the hollow organs which may be detected by percussing the subject's abdomen," the American Medical Association (AMA) explained in a piece debunking the machine.

"Dr. Abrams claims to be able to tell by this means whether the individual whose blood is being 'tested' is suffering from syphilis, sarcoma, carcinoma, typhoid fever, malaria, gonorrhea or tuberculosis and, if so suffering, where the diseased area is located. He can also diagnose pregnancy and the paternity of the fetus by the same method."

Abrams was, it is fair to say, the quackiest of quacks. The machines were sold to operators, who then claimed that diagnosis could actually be made from the signatures of people living or dead. They, of course, diagnosed the hell out of famous dead people, largely ascribing them sexually-transmitted infections.

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"When the autograph of Samuel Pepys was tested, this famous diarist was alleged to have suffered from congenital syphilis," the AMA explained. "The autographs of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Edgar Allen Poe gave the same result."

Other inventions included an "Oscilloclast". Abrams believed, or claimed to believe, that diseases had their own vibrations which could be picked up from his device. Since he also "believed" that drugs had their own vibrations, he could then give the patient the drug that really vibed with their disease. This machine was rental only, turning the scam into a sort of subscription model.

For a time he was able to practice the hoax, despite skepticism surrounding his claims from the start. His real downfall, however, came when the AMA and Scientific American threw their weight into debunking the claims. 

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"The absurdity of the [device] was demonstrated at various times by sending some of Abrams's disciples specimens of blood purported to be from patients who were ill but were actually taken from animals," the AMA wrote in their verdict. One sheep was diagnosed with hereditary syphilis, which a helpful practitioner offered to cure for $250. 

Chickens were diagnosed with the same condition from their blood, as well as some red ink, before both were offered a cure for that low, low price of $250. 

Nevertheless, Abrams was able to eke out a living with this fraud, as his practitioners got sued all over the place. He died suddenly from pneumonia in 1924, just as debunks of his claims became widespread.

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Long after his death, one of the devices was finally opened by the US Food and Drug Administration.

"One type produced a magnetic field, as in a vacuum cleaner or doorbell," a report in Beaver County Times explained in 1960. "Another was a low-powered transmitter, generating radio waves on the short wave band used by police or taxicabs."


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